Saraswathi is an artist, technoculturist, and hobby regenerist. She currently works as a design lead for a distributed basic income protocol, Circles, and supports a group of regenerative learners building the inevitably just and ecological future – Xyrden.
Hey Saraswathi, nice to have you. Tell me – what’s your background and research interests?
I’m half Polish and half Indian, my parents are both immigrants. I grew up in California. As a result I have a multiracial experience and sense of identity that almost undermines placehood. And maybe that’s one of the reasons why I got drawn to cryptocurrency and stateless basic income.
I studied Technocultural Studies as an undergrad, which is the study of technology and culture, and received a masters at the Interactive Telecommunications Program, which was at a rapid prototyping maker / hacker lab in New York at NYU.
My training as a technoculturist didn’t center on one particular discipline, so when I entered the professional working world I really wasn’t sure what I’d do. I realized that from having prototyped a bunch I had some experience designing interfaces, and so ended up exploring user experience design. I was 5 years into that when I encountered Ethereum through a mentor of mine.
What drew you to Ethereum and Universal Basic Income?
This was not long after the Occupy Movement. I think that was the first of the series of crises that really defined our generation and contemporary life. So when I heard about blockchain, I actually cried, because to me it indicated something miraculous. In a situation where we were up against a wall in terms of how we might re-vision a deeply broken system, something previously impossible to imagine appeared. I felt it was extraordinarily creative as a way of addressing the centralization of power. Or at least that’s how it seemed at the time.
But I ended up working in the Ethereum ecosystem and found it woefully short on economic alternatives. I remember hanging out with people working in crypto, and I was wearing a Matrix Reloaded hat as an ironic joke – that movie sucked, and I felt that we were finding our way out of “the matrix” with this new technology. But at a certain point I realized that my dumb hat was prophetic. The matrix was in fact being reloaded. Blockchain started to look like a shitty sequel to late capitalism. It was hypercapitalism 2.0, a copy/paste of the previous irredeemable system, and there were little to no humanistic economic alternatives being presented with these new currencies. I had been hugely naive thinking that the decentralization of finance meant a redistribution of power. And that was crushing. Simultaneously Donald Trump has just won in America. It was a rude and raw waking up, in a world that felt less and less safe, and it felt very personal. That put a lot of pressure on me to find something worthwhile to do.
So I asked around in the cryptocurrency space — “this is really a let down, is this anything going on here that is actually game changing or socially valuable?”
A good friend of mine told me that there was this project called Circles, that a lot of folks had been eyeing it but no one had really picked it up. I began to lead it from my end. It always has been very consciously non-hierarchical. But I took a leadership role and began to explore what this could be like, and slowly a team formed around the project.
What is the idea behind Circles?
Circles is a redesign of money itself. It’s helpful to know the origins of money through the lens of centralization of banking and the federal reserve. Most folks don’t know that the dominant money we all use is created as debt. This contemporary money was forged in deep inequality.The monetary system we currently use was designed before black folks or women could vote. Today’s money, known as fiat currency, was a tool forged in the skewed power structures that we see exacerbated today to the point of massive global uprisings.
What was interesting for me in the cryptocurrency space was that money became something malleable, a tool that could be recreated, an invention, not something granted, or God-sent – but human-made. It was designed once and was overdue to be designed again. In that sense Circles for me is an experimental artwork or a meme that points to the reality that economics are created, and can be creative.
That was a long answer. The short answer is that Circles is a decentralized complementary currency that is regularly distributed to all participants equally and universally – similar to UBI.
What is the innovation introduced by Circles?
First of all, Circles is a redesign of money to be justly distributed on creation, with no major benefit to early adopters. It is not backed by debt, but by trust within your community.
Circles is also speculation-resistant, it’s a currency that loses value over time, which incentivizes circulation over hoarding. One reference for this approach is known as the Miracle of Worgl. During an economic recession in this small Austrian town they issued a local demurrage, or decaying, currency. It was wildly successful in rebuilding town infrastructure. It was actually the only town in Europe to renovate it’s infrastructure during that period – because people needed jobs, and found support for their local economy when global economics failed. The central bank shut that project down.
Capital and capitalism are not mutually inclusive. When we think about capital as means of exchange, we don’t need to design capitalism. This is why I feel what we approach with Circles is a postcapitalist currency.
It’s a good moment to repeat that Circles is an artwork, a pragmatic work of art.
Who is the target audience of Circles?
Circles is a work of art, with utility.
We’ve explored some circumstances where alternative currencies could have a unique value proposition. One of them is alongside an Unconditional Autonomous Allowance, or UAA. It’s an interesting extension of the commons and the meeting of human needs through resources rather than currency. When we deal with basic income, it’s really important to consider that. Without resources, income is useless. And there are contexts where communities are exploring sovereignty by way of the maintenance of a commons. Some strong examples are ecovillages, for example Tamera, Damanhur, or Aurville, but also in Greece where the economy collapsed and they have started solidarity healthcare networks to support each other.
These places are regenerative contexts, growing their own food on their own land with ecological practices and building care economies. Basic income is interesting to me in these contexts, where Circles can be commonly owned and commonly run. The intention of Circles is that it be a community-developed initiative. It ideally can meet the specific needs of communities rather than becoming a hegemonic currency for the whole world.
It is decentralized, it is open source and we don’t actually ultimately have control over who uses it and where the experiment leads.
When we talk about where it could work, it’s totally speculative. It can work in an urban context, or in a global context as well. It’s really open-ended, but I am curious about how it can support smaller community contexts and municipalities.
Who is in the team behind Circles?
At the moment Circles is a team of 5 people from 5 countries that came together to co-create this experiment. It’s also a really nice reference point when we think about the origin of capital as we know it versus what’s possible when we begin to revise how certain parts of the world function.
The current Circles team is also more than 50% female. And that is relatively unheard of in tech and specifically cryptocurrency. Our team members have backgrounds in art, decentralization, economic anthropology, community organizing, music, politics and activism.
Where are you at with the project?
We are in beta, Circles launched with around 100 people in February using a basic Burner wallet in a browser.
Can you share some experiences and lessons learned from working together in this decentralized context?
I’ve worked on Circles for 3 years. In that time we went through about 3 or 4 different versions of the team setup, and I have a lot of hard won lessons from that. Circles is open source and is a super idealistic and values-driven project that has drawn a lot of really smart and optimistic people. One lesson for me about starting an organization and really getting it off the ground, was about working in a collaborative context with volunteers. The lesson is that eventually volunteers need to get paid, otherwise they naturally will go get other jobs. We had to figure out a way to make sure that people can sustain this work.
Another lesson is that it’s also very appealing to work with volunteers because they are authentically enthusiastic, but when you are trying to accomplish something specific it’s important that these people can do what needs to be done – which often requires experience and even expertise. Make sure that if you’re trying to accomplish something you have not the team that appears, but the team that you know can get it done.
In one iteration of Circles the team was completely flat and voted on everything. It was completely democratic in structure and that failed – and it failed hard. Folks were voting on things they’d never heard of in their life, for example whether we should get an AGPL license – for someone who never worked in tech and has other full time work, this is so far out of your lane, but that’s how we were structured. The struggle to handle information asymmetry, even in a small group, is real. When you are working towards a specific and time sensitive goal, teaching the whole team how coding cryptocurrency works is too tall of an order.
I would not do it specifically that way ever again, thought that’s not to say that we won’t continue to explore more thoughtfully implemented democratic or cooperative structures. Straight-up flatness stifled our ability to execute and deliver on promises we made to many people, including ourselves. When coordinating as syndicalists to an end, there are innate hierarchies that need to be honoured in order for things to function. Those are hierarchies of expertise and experience, and they do not have to equate to power over others.
If you are thinking of embarking on a project like that I’m always happy to talk about it. I’m always happy to talk about it.
How’s the collaboration at Circles looking now, after all these trials and tribulations?
Now we trust that people are taking decisions in their area of their expertise, and that they know what they are doing. There’s no formal process. There’s a natural accountability rather than a formalized system of accountability. I believe that in small groups – 5 people or less – that can be highly effective. Scaling is a different story.
What’s next for Circles? And how can people get involved?
Circles launches in October 2020. One way to get involved is to go to circles.garden and get a basic income. The second way is starting a community and using Circles as means of exchange.
If you’re a developer, Circles is open source, and you are welcome to support it. If you’re involved in policy and want to learn more, you can contact us and explore that possibility.
This project isn’t owned by anyone, so consider it yours 🙂
Nice 🙂 And what’s next for Saraswathi? Can you tell me about your path forward beyond involvement in Circles?
After spending a decade as a creative technologist working in the more abstract and immaterial realms of economics and cryptocurrency, I am eager to engage in the more material aspects of living, like.. soil, and ecology.
Probably for most of us there’s a really deep desire to be of service to this world, and since the origin of cryptocurrency in the financial collapse of 2008 we’ve been handed a veritable bouquet of crises to attend to! What was amazing for me about getting into cryptocurrency wasn’t only blockchain itself – but all of what’s adjacent to it. It was especially interesting to go to ecovillages to explore decentralized governance and community currencies, and I came out of it with more questions about regenerative cultures, about living ecologically. To me these places were like petri dishes offering glimpses at an alternative society, and some of these experiments were quite mature.
I realized that what we are really doing right now it’s just the tip of an iceberg. The rest of that iceberg is made of frameworks for what the world could look like were it reorganized to be just, ecological, and regenerative – there’s Rojava, there’s social ecology, there’s decentralized governance in community contexts, there’s the creation of technology within ecological limits, their circular systems, the list of what to learn has only grown.
What are the key topics that you have been exploring? And how did it lead you to creating your community, xyrden?
The topics that I was getting into before,when I started exploring blockchains, were game theory, mechanism design, decentralized governance, prediction markets, and artwork that explored decentralization. But what was really frustrating about it it’s that it was predominantly neoliberal politics that was being recycled or re-tooled. Luckily for me I found a handful of people who found that untenable and were dreaming of building another world, who were finding each other in the ugly haze of the matrix reloaded and knew they really wanted to start exploring alternatives.
We would meet once every two weeks to vent, and it felt to me we were all trying to build the same world. It was incredible – we came from different projects, yet were aligned in the world we were working toward. I started to call that world xyrden.
How come xyrden?
Xyrden came to me out of the blue but it was also stitched together from the things that resonated with me – one of them was a set of imaginary genders that seemed to me like a futuristic unoccupied space of identity. A gender beyond gender. Xyr also brings to mind cosmicomics, which is a book by Italo Calvino about the primordial world, where he personifies atoms as they drift through space, encountering each other sporadically and enthusiastically over eons. And they have names, like Qfwfq, that to me feel both ancient and futuristic, and somehow timeless in their absurdity.
So there’s xyr and there’s den.
And den is the natural space, a space of recreation, as well as a reference to Eden, or the world prior to separation, where we were in presence with our connectedness to all being. Where we understood our actions beyond action, from a space of play and innocence, and where we could be free.
That’s not to overload xyrden spiritually, cause it’s also a very practical and material discovery of our inevitably just and ecological world.
The intention in placing xyr by eden, is to queer eden. It’s telling that one of the most widely known origin stories of our time, if not the most, is patriarchal and heteronormative despite being a tale of oneness. Queering it is a small antidotal step toward I feel is truer.
Did it start as a meme sharing group?
No, though it is also a meme collective on Instagram.
Why are memes such an important medium of connection and expression these days?
Memes are bite sized propaganda on one level, as well as a way to take really complex concepts and reduce them to something digestible and replicable. Memes are also delightful, which is really cool. Reading Deleuze or Adorno or Foucault can be really taxing, plus it’s kind of classist. Academic language can limit people’s ability to access certain concepts, and academia barricades complex thought behind institutional doors. So memes are radical because they can disseminate important and often incessible information. But then you can also shitpost, which is legit. It’s a free medium.
What’s your vision for xyrden?
I have a lot of visions for xyrden, it’s a free-flowing and shapeshifting vision itself. One thing I felt resonant with is that it’s a multi-being being rendering the future’s now. Something like a future artificial intelligence. Like travelling to the past in order to ensure the future.
It reminds me of how Elon Musk and Grimes met. They bonded over “Rococco Baslik” a pun about an AI that sends itself into the past to destroy anyone who didn’t help in its making. I sometimes think of xyrden along the same lines, in a non-sinister way. What do you do to promote a now that creates the inevitable future that is ecological and just?
I’ve also thought about it as a school or social network. Something mycelial that’s a learning experience for the next world, because this world is collapsing, and all of us have a lot of unlearning and learning to do. We are co-creators, finding what feels good. Feeling what we want our future to be and creating spaces for it in ourselves and in communities is exciting and needed, and we must enjoy the world we want.
What are the online places where you exist, where do people connect to xyrden?
In my off-hours I’m working on a social network. There’s the meme account on Instagram and there’s a group chat on Telegram. Xyrden is also on Relevant. We hold reading groups on the inevitably just and ecological future. Those reading groups have been about degrowth, social ecology, emergent strategy, transformative justice, prison police abolition, and grief. There’s some other ones too. You can see the index at radne.ws
What are the topics that are the most important to the group?
We are in the moment where we’ve walked off the cliff of our imagination as a society and there are certain concepts that are so new to many, and so radically suggestive of meaningful societal alternatives. For example degrowth. Many people have never had words to even begin to articulate how we might live in a post-growth world. So we’re living in unarticulated sci-fi right now, we are living in an extraordinarily dystopian moment. And I think it’s really important to speak the language of the possible worlds that we can usher in. The more people who have the words, the more of these realities can come alive. The more deeply we can articulate even a moderately utopian premise, the closer that universe gets.
What are the practical and tangible activities bringing us close to that utopia that you pursue?
I don’t think we are there yet.
We practice for xyrden though – anytime we experiment organizationally, anytime we experiment with postcolonial postcapitalist strategy in action, its practice, anytime we try, anytime we fail. Anytime we exercise transformative justice in lieu of punishment. Anytime we perform care and mutual aid, and relate to the world as a network of care, anytime we can act in it like an interdependent community with needs that are valid and valued beyond the transactional – everytime we share, everytime we “common”, or engage in commoning together… All of that is practicing for xyrden. All of that is surfacing the world that’s no longer dying, calling in the lush and thriving heartspace we will reveal together.
Would you say this is about recovering something that has been lost in modernity, or in the globalized context. Is this about going back in time, or going back to a village?
Often in a paved parking lot you’ll find cracks in the asphalt, and in the cracks you’ll see dandelions. Life always finds a way to break through. At some point in time when the parking lot erodes and is no longer there – will it mean that we have gone backwards? No – life is still there. I think the communal aspect of humanity, for example, is similar to what we find in the dandelion. It’s as fundamental as life – not primitivist. The fact that something is reoccurring doesn’t necessarily make it primitive, it makes it fundamental. It makes it as persistent and humble as a dandelion. New dandelions sprout everyday. They are also an edible wild food with lots of healing properties, by the way..
If we stopped using fossil fuels, or even solar power, I still wouldn’t consider it primitivist. We could do it in a very modern way, we can do high tech post-energy. I’d love to see it.
What’s the reading list of xyrden?
Murray Bookchin, Brown, Angela Davis, Abdullah Ocalan, Jason Hickel, Donna Haraway, Margaret McFall-Ngai.
Tell us more about your perspective on the commons and commoning.
The idea of the commons is pre-capitalist. We are all born on this Earth and without the concept of private property, we would hold this land in common. No single person beyond the concept of capital would have the rights to ownership of this world we’ve been gifted. The commons is a recognition of our birth right, which is the sharing of this world together. What we see through history is enclosure which is the privatization of the commons, which includes water, earth, air and selling of what we share in exchange for profit.
One might argue that privatization is a form of maintenance of the commons but at this point that person would have to recognize that it’s a travesty. Privatization is a huge failure.
Privatization has not maintained the commons. We have decimated things to the point of extinction. Acknowledgment and recognition of that which we share and redistributing responsibility for maintenance, ideally at a fairly localized level, is pretty fundamental to the ideals of social ecology, circular economics or degrowth. It’s essentially a new level of awareness that’s very needful as we watch the world burn.
Do these places of commoning exist in the pockets of capitalism?
You can do some stuff outside of the monolith of capitalism. The commons is a way to meet certain needs outside of capital, through communal participation, through systems of relationships within a community. By commoning you could greatly reduce the reliance on contemporary capital to meet your fundamental needs.
This is also what the members of xyrden are doing?
Most folks are experimenting with commoning. And that includes foraging. The recognition that wilderness is an abundant space where you can find food, legitimately. Even in public spaces there’s free “resources” that we can harvest and maintain if we have to. You can common in an urban environment, you can common in a rural environment, and you can common anywhere in between.
Commoning doesn’t necessarily mean dramatic exit from society – it depends at what level you want to do it. Ecovillages are examples of community maintenance. The LA ecovillage for example is a self-governing community in Korea Town on a land trust, which means they can’t speculate on the real estate that they share. They all take responsibility for something that they can’t sell away for profit.
It’s important to note that commoning does not entail a dramatic exit of society, because many people see it in this way..
You can start commoning right now. You could start a lending library in your neighbourhood. You can start a guerilla garden on your street or other projects aimed at maintaining a common good.
And does it mean it doesn’t need rules or regulations, it’s based on trust?
Typically when you are really dependent on the commons there’s a web of social relationships and accountabilities you are enmeshed in. There’s less to be gained from selfishness than to be gained from participating in the production of the common good. In a way this is what people mean when they speak to “care economies” – supporting the common good is an act of self and community care.
Do you see any different approach to “commoning” between LA and Berlin?
The short answer is no. It’s context dependent, and has nothing to do with statehood. However it does have everything to do with the context of common good you are maintaining, what it is, the needs of the participants, and what is shared.
Who keeps track of these commoning activities?
That’s what I want xyrden to be. A network of those activities. I think it’s a really incredible moment for the parallel society that people are already participating in to grow in activity. To share resources and knowledge. We all need this next world. We need to be closer to the land, to community, to each other. You don’t necessarily need to go somewhere to make it happen, you just need to discover what you already have and tend to it like you would to a garden.
So you are hopeful about the future?
It depends on the day. If it’s just me in a peaceful place, I’m often in love with, moved and grateful for life. When I’m reading the news – I’m often not. However things like Black Lives Matter, the reality that the cracks in the system are so wide you can’t miss them – I feel that beyond that chaos there’s a new system. Now is a really important moment to imagine and engage the future we want. We are looking at the rubble of someone’s failed utopia. Everything is someone’s failed utopia – Capitalism is someone’s failed utopia. It looks decimated, and like a trash fire. I would say those who are xyrdening are likely anti-capitalist, antiracist, ready to abolish the police and prisons. Because all of that is an abhorrently violent death cult that devalues life. However being anti-racist and anti-capitalist doesn’t inherently propose what’s next. And abolishing prison for many folks drops them into a crisis of imagination. Xyrden is an exploration of what our future actually contains. We can seed ourselves with the knowledge heartful people have been gathering about what exists beyond this composting death cult.
We need to reach across and provide a vision. There has to be a vision. And the vision doesn’t have to be perfect – there’s no utopia ultimately. Any world will have it’s shadow but that doesn’t mean we stop. It doesn’t mean it’s not worth reaching for high noon, the least shadow, holding that world, really holding it – inside of us and outside of us, as valid and as a given.
We render dystopia constantly. We’re on it with the dystopian narratives. There’s so few accessible renderings of utopian vision in this society. There’s Star Trek… tell me where there are postcapitalist futures rendered in pop culture. They are paltry.
I often think about Schrödinger’s cat when I think about folks sitting with all of these dark narratives and our potential futures. To me the proliferation of dystopian fiction reveals a deeply destructive poverty of imagination. Maybe folks do it cause it sells – however that is not adequate justification in a dying world. We have to redirect our imagination and attention if we are to discover what’s next in ourselves.
I hear people like Black Mirror – but to me it’s an epic case of seeing Schrödinger’s cat dead. And I’m interested in keeping Schrödinger’s cat alive. What are the stories where the cat thrives, and is fully in love with living. Where the cat is living in heaven – not because it died, but because it lives! You feel me.
Epic. Is there anything you want to ask of the readers here?
I’d ask everyone to be dedicated – not the cult of positivity – but to the crafting of beautiful and detailed utopias for humanity to explore. Our future selves are thanking you.